Revelation by Carol Berg
...The Council convened three days after my encounter, as soon as Kenehyr could arrive from his home in southern Ezzaria. Such charges could not wait. I spent the days training as usual, though on my own, not with Catrin and her students. In the other hours I read everything in the Queen's library on demon lore. There was perishingly little. Nothing that hinted of demons who only desired to learn of the world.
Young Drych brought me word of the Council meeting as I sat poring over a manuscript that was telling me yet again that a demon's only hunger was for death and evil. The young man was nervous and agitated, and spoke softly as if the guards could not hear. "What's happening, Master? Is it a usual thing to have to explain yourself to the Council? I'm not good at talking in front of so many. And they've said none of us should hold speech with you until they say. I don't understand it, when you are the finest . . . the strongest Warden we've ever had."
I was touched that his faith in me was not shaken by what he had heard. "Don't worry about it. You must always review extraordinary encounters with your mentor," I said. "And sometimes the Council wants to hear of them too, so that we all may learn. Especially now, as things are changing from what we've experienced in the past. You must always be ready to learn something new, to stay alert, to listen to your own reason and judgment. Sometimes we forget that. You can only do your best, and that's all I've done. When your day comes, you'll do very well."
I wished I'd been allowed to review the case with Catrin, but her position on the Council precluded any contact with me until the hearing. But she was intelligent and clever. She would know how to manage things to get it over with quickly.
The five sat in a half circle in a modest, high-ceilinged room with large windows and a softly shining floor of oaken planks. I was motioned to a straight-backed chair facing the Council. There was no other furnishing in the room. No hangings, no tapestries, no rugs or tables or footstools. Just warm sunlight. The scraping of the wooden chair legs echoed faintly in the emptiness, until all were settled and only the droning of bees and the occasional screech of a jay from the woodland beyond the window intruded on the silence.
Talar, her iron-gray hair twisted into a knot on top of her head, her smooth bronze skin taut over high cheekbones and a well-proportioned, but exceedingly rigid, jaw, began the proceedings. "Seyonne, Warden of Ezzaria, you are summoned before this Council to answer the most serious of charges . . . "
It took her quite a while to recount them all. The first was, of course, that I had allowed a demon to retain possession of a victim unchallenged. The next was the killing of the slave merchant victim. Then followed Fiona's list of slighted rituals, suspect teachings, and minor errors. The only real surprise was the inclusion of the lost battle.
A frowning Catrin, seated at Talar's far left, interrupted the recitation at that point. "I thought we agreed that this particular event would not be mentioned. It is no crime to lose in demon combat. On the contrary, it is imperative that a Warden withdraw when facing an unwinnable conflict. He must put his safety and that of the Aife above pride."
Kenehyr nodded in agreement, his wrinkled face troubled. It was the round-cheeked Maire who answered. "We know this, Catrin, and will certainly not hold a withdrawal as evidence of treason. Yet I see value in hearing the pattern of these past days. The complete view of events helps us see everything in proper perspective. But truly the loss should not have been listed as a charge." This last was directed at Talar, who nodded formally to Maire and made a notation on the paper.
At this point I resigned myself to a very long day. No hope of a quick review of the battle in question, a quick vote, and a reprimand warning me to be more careful in rituals when our understanding of our own traditions was so limited. I had hoped to spend the afternoon and evening talking with Kenehyr. The old man had worked closely with our best scholars through the years, and knew as much as any Ezzarian about demon-possession.
Instead I would spend the day explaining why I thought wiping the floor of the temple was not necessary after a battle, and why, since one recitation of the closing chant was soothing and healing, did I not see that three recitations were even better? And I would have to be on my best behavior and not insinuate that this innate hostility I detected in Fiona prevented her from giving a fair appraisal of my actions. Although her observations were scrupulously honest, her interpretation of my motives was always the worst it could be.
Indeed it was mid-afternoon before we got to the crux of the matter. We had been brought food and wine at midday. I had gone to stand beside one of the windows while I ate. Several times I caught Catrin watching me. Of course she could not come and talk to me, but I expected some sign, some gesture of reassurance. Yet she remained expressionless and didn't eat. It left me more than a little uneasy.
After only a quarter of an hour we resumed. The Council members moved to the edge of their chairs as Talar uttered the most important command of the day. "Tell us of your last demon encounter, Warden."
I had to ignore my growing disturbance and bring all of my senses to bear on my telling. I tried to recall every detail, every word, every sensation, every smell and taste and sound, and relay it to the five who sat in judgment, so they could experience it as truly as I had done. I wanted to make them hear and see and wonder at it as I did. Every passing moment led me to believe that my experience was, in many ways, as significant as my battle with the Lord of Demons, a portent that we could not ignore.
"No evil!" Caddoc had a harsh dry laugh that grated on the ear. "You deemed yourself fit to judge such a thing. Interesting that it was after the creature had shown you its prowess with a sword that you made this determination."
"I have no shame in losing a battle," I said. "Since you included the one I lost in this telling, then take it as evidence of that, at least. I deemed this rai-kirah not attracted to evil, and that it was not to our benefit to destroy him. Bring other evidence of my cowardice, if that's your claim."
"Not cowardice," said Talar. "No one accuses you of cowardice."
Maire leaned forward, her long braid stark white against the dark red of her shapeless dress. "You make it sound as if this demon was expecting you personally. It knew that you transformed beyond the portal. It claimed that it would very much like to get to know you, and that it would remember you. Was this not a concern?"
"Demons always say such things . . . " But even as I made the claim, I heard the voice again.
. . . next time we meet . . . "It was not a threat. He had no malice in him, Maire. Curiosity, yes. Knowledge, yes. He knew me as the Warden; after so many encounters in such a short time, so many demons sent back and no other Wardens, I suppose it was inevitable."
"He knew you as the slayer of the Lord of Demons?"
"Yes." He had known quite clearly, in fact. Known that I was not Rhys, my boyhood friend who had sold his soul to the Lord of Demons. Expressed satisfaction that I had killed the . . . what had he called it? "The Naghidda."
"It was his name for the Lord of Demons-Naghidda." Only then, as I said it before the Council, did the meaning of the demon word come to me. The Precursor. Why did he use that name . . . and why did it sound an alarm bell in my mind?
"Why were you not afraid, Seyonne? Explain it to me." The kind-faced Weaver was pleading to understand. "This was a demon who said it knew you and expected to see you again. Expected to find ‘common ground' with you. Is this not what we have tried to avoid for a thousand years? Tell me why it didn't worry you."
Caddoc did not allow me time for further explanation, even if I could have given it. "Could there be any more blatant sign of corruption?" he said. "Must we see him bring down the host on our heads before we heed the warning? Even if he blinds himself . . . "
Maire sat back in exasperation and murmured to Kenehyr as Caddoc vented his feelings yet again.
They had not heard me. I sagged back in my chair and leaned my mouth on my hand. What would it take to convince them?
"How many battles have you fought in the past month, Seyonne?" It was Catrin's first question of the long afternoon. The others fell silent at her soft intrusion.
"Uncountable," I said without thinking. "Twenty-five, at least."
"And in the month before that?"
"I don't know. Ten. Fifteen."
"Twenty-three to be exact. And twenty before that. More than two hundred and fifty in thirteen months. An unheard of number for any Warden in our history, who have considered five in a month an ominous burden." She leaned forward a bit in her chair. "And how many battles have you lost in that time?"
"One. Only the one." I couldn't understand her. Everyone on the Council knew these things. It was the war. The lack of Wardens. There was no choice. I didn't want her to make more of it, to make them think it bothered me.
"And in how many have you lost the victim-caused death?"
"Just the one."
"And in how many-in this or in any combat of your warding-have you come upon a demon you would not fight?"
"Only this, but-"
"Tell us, Seyonne, my dear friend, what happened with your wife three weeks ago."
"Catrin . . . " What was she doing?
"You've sworn to answer truthfully and completely, to do whatever we ask of you to clarify these charges and your actions. And so I ask you to tell this Council what happened in your home these past days."
She knew what I would answer-and what I could not answer. I was no good at pretending, and I had sworn to tell the truth, whether they wanted to hear it or not. And so I told them what had come about. The words fell harshly on the waiting silence. Then I compounded my crime by refusing to blame the gods for the dilemma or its terrible resolution.
My friend did not relent. She was not speaking to the Council, but to me. Though I could feel the shock and dismay from the others in the room, I had eyes only for Catrin.
"And now, Seyonne . . . I know this will be difficult, and I do not ask it lightly . . . " As if anything could be more difficult than the words she had just forced me to say. " . . . I ask you to remove your shirt."
"I will not!" I jumped up from my chair, appalled, disbelieving. "It has no bearing-"
"You will do as you are bid, Warden, or this hearing will be closed." Talar stood and faced me down, though she, too, looked at Catrin for clarification.
If the hearing were closed without resolution, I would be left in a half life of suspicion. Surely Catrin had some plan. But what plan could require such appalling invasion of my privacy? To bring up Ysanne and the child . . . and to force me to expose the legacy of my years in bondage. I could not believe she would think that some maudlin sympathy was going to change Talar or Caddoc's mind. It was only going to remind them of the very reason they believed me unfit-that such punishment could only have come down on me because I was irredeemably corrupt. She was digging my grave.
"I ask you again, Seyonne. Remove your shirt and turn around. Only for a moment."
Gritting my teeth and inventing five-hundred ways to tell Catrin how despicable I thought her tactics, I pulled off my dark red shirt and allowed the others to see what ugliness could result from a strap of Derzhi leather. There was no finger's breadth of my back or arms that was not ridged with scars, and the crossed circle burned into my shoulder-the mark of bondage-glared like a red sun in the golden light of that room, a companion piece to the royal mark burned into my face.
I closed my eyes and tried to control my rage, such a fierce combat that I almost could not hear the soft command. "You may put it back on and step out of the room." There was sorrow in Catrin's words, but it would take more than sorrow to repair such betrayal.
Yet even as I thrust my arms back into the soft linen and slammed the door behind me, I did not comprehend what was going on. As soon as the five had imposed whatever reprimand Talar and Caddoc would insist upon, I planned to take aside Catrin and Kenehyr, at least, and try again to explain. I glared at Fiona as she entered the room after me. Then I paced the long hall, cursing myself, cursing the women in my life who all seemed to have gone mad, wanting to put my head through a wall for not being more articulate, revising words and phrases that I deceived myself into thinking would have made a difference in my explanation. I yearned for them to understand what I had felt from this demon.
Half an hour later Fiona came out of the room, so her story was now told on top of mine. She stayed well away from me, sitting in a window seat at the far end of the hallway. Perhaps she felt my earnest desire to throttle her stiff neck. Only when we were called back inside after an interminable hour did she approach me and attempt to speak, her face cold as always. "Master Seyonne, I-"
"We are summoned. No time for pleasantry," I said, motioning her to precede me into the room. I detested it when she called me "Master".
The five were in their chairs as before, no sign of their conflicts or deliberations on their faces. Talar always looked sour, so I could not count that as good news. Maire had her eyes closed. Catrin sat like stone. And this time, Ysanne was present, sitting in a high-backed chair to the right of the Council circle. She was not there as my wife. As queen she was required to confirm any judgment of the Council. She met my glance with a steady unsmiling face. I might have been a stranger.
Talar, of course, pronounced the verdict. "Seyonne, son of Joelle and Gareth, you are judged not guilty of treason..."
Talar paused only to take a breath, which meant I could not, because she was clearly not done, and there was no relief or happiness or satisfaction among any of the five.
" . . . yet you have clearly violated your Warden's oath by permitting a demon to retain possession of a human soul unchallenged. How are we to judge you, save that you are disturbed in mind, whether from corruption or from the excessive burden of your calling or from other things which we cannot name?"
"No," I said. "I'm not..." …
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2001
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